The Skies of Africa – Part 2, Khwai

Khwai, ahh Kwhai! It remains my favourite part of Botswana (although in all fairness I haven’t visited the entire range of game reserves in the country). There’s just something about this area that I completely fell in love with.

Khwai is part of the Moremi reserve, a drier section of the Okavango Delta. It’s considered one the most magical parts of Botswana, and that’s definitely the effect it had on me. After another short flight across more of the Delta, you come in for a landing at another short sandy strip, and proceed to the entrance to Khwai village, where there’s a scattering of traditional round mud huts with conical thatched roofs, and a small rectangular ‘tuck shop’ where you can restock on AA or AAA camera batteries and possibly a storage disk or two. The mud huts are built with material from disused termite mounds, so they’re as waterproof and weather-resistant as the mounds themselves.

The Khwai villagers used to live in the game reserve itself, but were moved outside of it with the offering of a concession to run the tuck shop, sell their beautiful handwoven basketry, and work as safari staff. At the edge of the village a picturesque, rough log bridge straight out of an adventure movie crosses the Khwai river to take you into the reserve itself.

Our guides let us out at the start of the bridge for photo ops and so we could have the fun of walking across ourselves while they drove the safari vehicles with all of our luggage across, picking us up on the other side. Pretty grey vervet monkeys with charcoal faces tend to hang about the bridge and watch the human antics.

Our second bush camp was set up in a clearing amid acacias and sausage trees. In the distance, from the direction of the river we could hear hippos grunting, and since we were there during rutting season, at night the male impalas snorted at each other for hours not very far from our tents – one night I was tempted to hurl a hiking boot at them.

The landscape of Moremi, and Khwai in particular, is flat and colourful, with thickets of green acacias and mopane interspersed with white termite mounds, gold and russet grasses, blue pools of water and large muddy grey wallows where you can size up your footprint next to an elephant’s.

We often stopped for morning tea in a clearing near the river, watching rust-coloured lechwe antelope graze while Nile crocodiles sunned along the river bank and wading birds strolled through the water.

Lazy lunches back at camp were followed by naps, journal-writing or a spot of laundering with an afternoon cocktail.

In the late afternoon our guide would take us back out to catch elephants moving through the golden grasses and lions huffing as their pride settled down with the dwindling rays of the sun.

With such a varied terrain, Khwai is truly a birder’s paradise. On our first trip to Botswana we had a birder from Australia in our group, and we soon became as fascinated as he was as our guide pointed out all the exotic-looking birds for the tally. Cranes, African ground hornbills, open-billed storks, spoonbills, pied kingfishers, Egyptian geese, tawny eagles, fish eagles, kori bustards, lilac-breasted rollers… a buffet of birds for spotting.

Open-billed stork
Kori bustard
Lilac-breasted rollers

Our safari company had provided small wildlife journals with descriptions of the animals as well as checklists to mark off everything we spotted. We quickly learned that this was an essential activity – we’d regularly see at least a dozen or more new creatures in a single day, and the only way to remember which was which was to jot notes in the order that you took photos of them!

Nights were cooler there, with less moisture to hold in the heat. I can still remember the feeling of lying snug and warm under my duvet while cool fresh air bathed my face. It was a wonderful way to sleep.

One night I woke up briefly to snuffling and grunting beneath the tent window. I couldn’t see what the animal was, but the next morning, upon describing the sounds to our guide, he told me it would have been a honey badger, a fierce animal that I was happy not to have met face-to-face. The guides are experts at identifying animals by their different sounds and tracks, and they’ll spot a giraffe peeking out of the trees long before you do, a bird in a distant tree, a rock python slithering through the grass.

In the morning the camp staff would come round to each tent to gently wake us up. In the morning chill we dressed quickly with a minimum of primping in the low pre-dawn light, although I did bring a portable lighted plastic mirror that has become an indispensable travel companion ever since.

Bush camping is an intimate experience. The tents are clustered enough that you get to know the routines of your fellow travellers pretty well, especially if you’re on a safari with shared toilet and shower facilities. There’s not much to be done in the way of grooming when you have no electricity, and hair issues are easily hidden under a hat, thank goodness.

Mornings are usually a quick washup and tooth-brushing with warm water in either a canvas bucket or a tin basin while the raucous francolin birds chatter all around the camp. You have time for a swipe of unscented deodorant, and exchanging sleep wear for layers that can be removed as the day gets warmer. Our usual outfit would be convertible hiking pants that would keep our legs warm in the morning chill but with zip-off bottom halves that could be taken off to create long shorts; a t-shirt underneath a ventilated hiking shirt, maybe topped with a sweater and/or light jacket; socks and hiking shoes; and scruffy hair tucked under a hat.

As the temperature rose, typically into the 80s or 90s F by lunch time, we would peel off layers and stuff them in the seat pouches.

A light meal of coffee or tea, cereal and toast; a quick potty break; you make sure you have your daypack with camera, water, journal and pen; and you pile into the safari vehicle for the morning game drive.

On every safari we’ve done, the participants take turns in different seats of the open part of the vehicle so that everyone gets a chance at different viewpoints. The experience is different depending on where you sit. Up front in the cab next to the guide, you get to see everything first, and it’s fun to chat. In the rear section, on a good safari every participant has a ‘window’ seat with an unimpeded view.

When open-sided vehicles are used, as they are throughout Botswana, the seating is typically staggered in height, lowest in front to highest in back. The two seats farthest back can provide the best viewing from the elevated height, but it’s also the bumpiest place to sit, and while the guides keep an eagle eye out for logs and ruts, an unexpected deep pothole can send you flying.

When animals are spotted, the guide will position the vehicle in the best possible viewing location with a good angle for photos. If it’s possible without spooking the animals, he may even reposition after a while so that guests on both sides have good photo ops, Good safaris will also stay with an exceptional sighting for as long as the guests want, instead of rushing off somewhere else on a tight schedule.

We spent a long time enjoying the spectacle of our first big male lion, belly full and sated from a big meal, as he lay languidly in the shade digesting, He was quite unconcerned with our presence. We were able to get close enough to smell him, and I can tell you that male lions stink. It’s a wonder they can find a female to mate with!

Afternoon game drives operate a bit differently, since many public game reserves don’t allow night viewing to avoid disturbing the animals. As the day turns to dusk, the predators come out to hunt, while the other animals start to settle down for the night. Baboons that have been foraging in the grasses all day will move up into the tree branches, impalas sprint across the fields to their nightly abode, giraffes scent the evening air and lumber slowly away through the trees. In most reserves the guide is required to return you to camp by nightfall.

In private concessions, you may get to do one or two night drives. A spotter will sit up on a special seat on the front edge of the vehicle’s hood, carrying a spotlight. The guide will slowly drive along through the deepening darkness, looking for movement in the brush and eyes reflected in the light. You might spot a serval cat prowling through the grasses or a spotted hyena loping down the road. If you’re near water and are very lucky, there might be a ghostly Pel’s fishing owl in a tree. It’s an interesting peek at life in the wild on the flip side of the day.

A Pel’s owl

Either during the lunch break, or before dinner, your canvas bucket will be filled up with hot water so you can have a bush shower.

It’s my assertion that you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced a hot bucket shower in the African bush. A large canvas bucket, hanging from a tree branch or a wooden stand, holds enough water for two people, if you’re careful. You strip and step onto a slatted wooden platform, then open the spigot at the bottom of the bucket to allow enough water through to get you wet. The spigot gets closed while you lather up from head to foot; the camp provides the unscented, biodegradable shampoo and shower soap.

Once that you’re fully soaped up, you reopen the spigot to quickly rinse off. The water drains into the dirt through the wooden slats beneath your feet as you take your fluffy towel off its metal perch to dry off and get dressed so the next person can have their turn.

On our first safari, where the shower tents were shared by all, there was a thick rope to string across the opening that showed the tent was occupied, and the shower itself was located in a separate section with its own flap. It was my misfortune one windy day in the Khwai camp to be in mid-shower when my hubby started frantically calling my name. A male elephant on a mating mission, blind with lust, was charging through the edge of our camp. But the wind was trying hard to flip open the tent flaps, and it was impossible for me to take a look without flashing everyone – not for lack of trying! Intensely frustrated, I had to be content with hearing about it afterward.

Black-backed jackals on the hunt

After two days our time in magical Khwai was done, and once more we gathered up our belongings while the safari staff packed up the entire camp. From there it was a full day overland, back through Khwai village and northward through hours of bush to get to our third camp in Savute, famed for its sunsets. There were sunsets in Khwai, of course, but apparently they paled in comparison to Savute’s, where the wide savannah topography allowed for magnificent views.

Savute was also a good place to see leopards. At the start of a safari your guide may ask you what animal you most want to see, and will try and find it for you. My instant answer was a leopard – dangerous, beautiful, and elusive. We’d now spent four days trying to spot one, and time was running out. I tried not to get my hopes too high for Savute, and I knew there were no guarantees that we’d see one at all, but Savute was my last best chance.

Next week, part 3: Savute!